Back in December 2002, I was pleasantly surprised to find out about a license plate swap meet in Acton, Ontario, the following April. The province of Ontario has some avid, almost fanatical collectors, but until 2000, there hasn't been a lot going on in terms of swap meets or get-togethers.
In 2000 and 2001, there were independent plate meets in Ottawa——right in my own backyard. Neither meet had many attendees, but for me, the location couldn't get any better. In 2002, ALPCA's annual convention was in Niagara Falls, New York——just across the river from Ontario. There was no small meet that year, but in my view, the ALPCA show might have made a small Ontario meet redundant.
Fast-forward to April 27, 2003. It was a beautiful morning in Acton, a small town about 45 minutes northwest of Toronto. I was driving up (former) Highway 25 with the sun shining to my right. The leaves weren't out yet, but it felt like a summer day. My destination was the local hockey rink, where, in a few minutes, a long-awaited swap meet would be starting. Boy-o-boy.
I saw some familiar people carrying heavy crates and boxes as I pulled into the parking lot. I shut off the car and started unloading my junk. The signs directed me into the arena, over to the visitors' bench, and out onto the polished concrete play area, which a few weeks earlier had been covered in ice. I selected a table inside a face-off circle and started setting up. I chatted with my hosts and fellow collectors as I unpacked and made trips back out to the car for various forgotten items. People are usually quite surprised to see my paltry trade stock. Maybe it's because I shoot my mouth off in this column, or because I've been running ALPCA's website, but some figure that I must have a very extensive collection and tons of traders. While I don't mind that preconception, I readily admit that my two wooden crates hold the entire extent of my trade stock. I'm a pretty modest collector, in terms of the size of my collection. My interests are pretty narrow, and I'll generally save my energy for the stuff that I really want.
I spent very little time at my table, opting instead to chat with Dave Steckley, Paul Cafarella, Manny Jacob, Gary Edwards, "Sam" Samis, William Loftus, Norm Ratcliffe, Dave Wilson, Joe Sallmen and Mike Stevely, among others. In fact, I got very little trading done, but I enjoyed chatting with the folks. Most of my transacting was actually done in the form of trading——no money involved. I didn't buy or sell very much. I added plates from Ghana and Sri Lanka to my collection, plus a 2000 Ontario CCMTA plate, and a few other minor plates.
A certain person, who I would say is rather unpopular, can always be counted upon to sneak up at a swap meet, either trying to slip inside for free, or gain some kind of tactical trading advantage by eavesdropping on conversations. Said person is rumoured to have a priceless collection that would stun any collector fortunate enough to lay eyes upon it. However, no one has ever seen this person's collection——he won't take visitors. He can also be counted upon to have one incredible plate on hand, never available to trade, but more as a kind of trophy, used to flatten other collectors' spirits. Every time he does it, the morale of the people in the room goes——dare I say it——"kerplunk." This person, after he was detected by the organizers, reluctantly paid his admission fee and started a BS conversation as a segue to showing us a plate in his bag. "What's the lowest-numbered Ontario plate that any of you have ever seen?" I cringed. I have the 1971 Ontario pair 1005, and since the series started at 1000, that makes mine number 5 for that year. However, he meant the absolute lowest number, and not some boring piece of tin starting at 1000. "What about 1912 Ontario plate number 48?" someone asked. It had been on eBay a couple of times with an impossibly high reserve. The person replied with a smug grin. "Oh, I have the mate to that plate at home. We're talking lower than 48." He could lie and we'd never know, since we've never seen his collection. I chose not to believe him.
"What about 1911 Ontario plate number 1?" I asked. I had seen a picture of it, and a few of us with nodding heads knew the absent collector to whom it belonged. It was the first plate ever made for annual issue in Ontario. The smug smile on the person diminished. He abruptly ended the discussion and pulled out 1919 plate number 11. There were a few obligatory oohs and aahs, not so much for the owner, but for the plate itself. We took a good look, since we knew we'd never see it again.
To this person, I'm a rugrat. I have no political connections and I haven't been collecting for long, relative to many others. I'm basically not worth talking to, judging by the condescension coming from the man. He even walked up beside me once at a flea market, peered at an Ontario Motor League book that I was holding, and then walked off without a word. Abruptly, in Acton, he called me by name. "Jon!" he said. "What do you want for this?" He held up a one-of-a-kind test plate. I had been hoping to sell it for a modest amount, but if His Lordship was interested, it was probably worth more. "What do you have to trade?" I asked. "Pretty much everything. What are you looking for? Special numbers, years, types, what? What?" He questioned me aggressively, probably waiting for me to undervalue the plate. His idea of trading is to choose some non-essential plates, bring them to a neutral doughnut shop, and expect his counterpart to agree to a trade, sight previously unseen. If he wanted my plate, I would need a list from him, and I stood my ground in that respect. He stopped gunning me with questions and went on to other things. I joked with the "good guys" in the hobby about his trade tactics, and was secretly relieved that I was no longer naïve enough to fall for an aggressive sales pitch from a person with vastly more experience at being a slimeball than I.
Seven hours had passed in the blink of an eye. Some folks were packing by 3 pm, and others were long gone. There were probably 40 attendees in total. I took some pictures, shook some hands, and pledged my support to our hosts for a meet in Acton next year. I packed up, hopped in the car, and made a left turn onto Highway 7. I stayed on it basically all the way home to Ottawa. Only took five hours-- it was a pretty drive after a pretty good day.